App of the Week: 868-HACK

Developer: Michael Brough

Compatible with: iPhone,  iPod Touch, iPad

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: $5.99

Available: here

“868-Hack” is not a game for everyone. Admittedly that’s an unusual way to start off this column, but in a game as bizarre and challenging as “868-Hack,” it also happens to be the one definitive truth.

A rouge-like game (meaning an RPG with permanent death and randomized levels) the basic concept of “868-Hack” is not immediately easy to understand, but essentially it sees you navigate a smiley face avatar of your hacker through a 6×6 computer grid. Along the way you hack grids for currency and data to gain new abilities and increase your score and move on to more and more challenging grids. Impeding your progress are computer virus enemies that are often triggered en mass by hacking the most valuable grids, and have to be dealt with by swiping attacks at them when they are lined up with you. Just be sure to stay on top of them, as three hits and the game is done.

In a way the design is reminiscent of free game staple “Minesweeper” in that you must constantly plan for and around the most dangerous areas, and think several moves ahead (as well as take leaps of faith) to even stand a chance of progressing.  This is made all the more challenging by a turn based system that forces you to not only account for your moves well in advance, but those of your enemies as well, as you must constantly juggle between attacking and evasion, along with snagging valuable resources.

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Inevitably there will be a point where you cannot make the right decision that keeps you alive and, since this is a rogue-like, that means you start all over and lose your progress. Games of this nature are supposed to be difficult, but considering how quickly things can go bad here even if you’re playing the game right, this has to be one of the more challenging experiences available in gaming. That, along with the fact that such a merciless experience is rarely available on the mobile platform, leads to the whole “not for everyone” catch.

But damn, is this a great game. It challenges you at every step to be better than you were before, and if you’re the type of person who welcomes an intellectual test, and laughs at the idea of inevitable death, you’ll find an experience that may constantly beat you down, but shows you successes sweeter than any other to keep you as hooked as you’ll ever be to a game of any type on any platform.

It’s that element that justifies the higher than usual asking price for “868-Hack” and turns it into a game that is not only atop the list of mobile games of the year, but actually puts it somewhere in the conversation of best games of the year on any system. No it isn’t for everyone, but sometimes you have to stand back and look at something as a whole and appreciate it just for its brilliant design. Do that, and you’ll be left looking at an unforgiving and intelligent app of the week.

  

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App of the Week: ReRave

Developer: Step Evolution

Compatible with: iPhone 3GS and up, iPod Touch 3rd Gen and up, iPad

Requires: iOS 5.1

Price: $0.99

Available: here

While there are quite a few gaming franchises I want to come back (“Crimson Skies”!!!!!!), I think the one that I may be most personally nostalgic for is “Elite Beat Agents.”

Released around the height of music gaming’s popularity, “Elite Beat Agents” may have been based around a bizarre story (save the world with the power of dance, basically), but the gameplay couldn’t have been more simple, as you tapped various buttons in time with the beat of a song, en route to victory. Impossibly addictive and incredibly unique, this game wore down my stylus to a nub and stands amongst the crowded DS library as a true highlight.

The fact that talks of a sequel remain only rumors used to sadden me, but those feelings have been recently alleviated somewhat by the discovery that there is a spiritual successor to that experience by the name of “ReRave.”

Though it bears no official similarities to “EBA,” “ReRave” sports a similar concept that sees you tap circles in correct sequence to the beat of the songs. The difference is, that whereas “EBA” required a shrinking outer circle to reach the borders of your button before you could tap it, “ReRave” sees you manipulating circles that bear resemblance to the power button of many devices, and tapping them only when the line on the bottom reaches the 12 o’ clock position,until the song is done. While most are vanquished with a  simple touch, some require you to hold them until they finish a bath, some require multiple taps at 1/8th beat intervals, and the dreaded double circles appear that must be completed simultaneously.

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Like any good rhythm game, this is a system that allows for an “easy to learn, tough to master,” philosophy, and quickly pulls you into the overall experience. A big part of this has to go to the music which may not make my playlist in everyday life (it’s a lot of club like music), but works absolutely perfectly in a gaming environment such as this, as their unique beats and paces result in creative playgrounds of rhythm based tapping that will have your fingers dancing across the screen with maniacal precision. Thankfully multiple difficulty levels allow you to adjust as needed if things get too intense, or not near intense enough.

Now while it’s nice that the game features leaderboards, downloadable songs (both free and paid), and a ton of achievements, in truth if the game came with nothing but a few tracks and just the gameplay screen, I’d still be hopelessly addicted to it. This style of gameplay for a music game was flawless in “EBA,” and it maintains that untainted luster here as “ReRave” is one of the most engrossing games available in the music gaming genre, and in all of mobile gaming.

Normally I’d look down on a game for borrowing so liberally from another title, but it’s about time someone brought back this style of gameplay to mobile gaming, and the team behind “ReRave” have done so with near flawless execution. When you really think about it, gaming has long been pressing a series of buttons in proper order, so it really says something that the concept has almost never been as hopelessly addictive as it has in “ReRave,” a can’t miss app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Tiny Token Empires

Developer: HeroCraft Ltd.

Compatible with: Android Devices

Requires: Android 2.3 and Up

Price: $2.99

Available: here

I set out to find a productive app this week. Truly I did.

Though there were a couple of worthy candidates (the lively note taking app mem:0 and the resume creating app resume designer both warrant a look), one app peaked my interest more than any other this week, and kept me from being productive entirely.

In the spirit of trying to bring the best of the best in apps then, I’ve got to tell you about “Tiny Token Empires”.

If you’ve ever played “Puzzle Quest” or its sequel, you’ve already got an idea of what to expect from “Empires.” The difference is that while “Puzzle Quest” was an RPG that used matching puzzles in place of traditional combat, “Empires” is a world conquest sim with a similar puzzle battle formula.

You’d expect the world sim aspect to be the focus of this game then to separate itself, but you’d be wrong. That part is essentially an extremely watered down version of the “Civilization” games, as you build your resources and expand your empire by conquering the towns of nearby nations. While elements of that series like unit types, special characters and troop movements are present in “Empires,” all political aspects, or anything unrelated to military movements are not.

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It’s a simplified style that only works as well as it does by playing second to what is an excellent puzzle system. Whenever combat is initiated, whether it be with rival armies or mythical creatures, a puzzle board is shown with all units involved displayed on both sides. To attack, you have to combine three of the same puzzle tiles (think “Bejeweled”) that match the color of one of your units. Defeat all enemy units, and victory is yours.

The combat element adds an incredibly welcome depth to the otherwise standard system, as you’ll have to always consider the colors you need, as well as your opponent to attempt to counter their best attacks. Similarly, getting the right combo chain can turn the tide of the battle entirely, as the right one can win you a battle instantly, or lose you everything. It brings an element of urgency to an otherwise casual game, and ironically leads to more strategy than the strategy element.

Like so many other noteworthy gaming apps, where “Empires” stands out is its style. Don’t be turned off by the cartoon looks, as they’re just used to enhance the game’s tongue-in-cheek approach to history. It’s not the type of humor that’ll have you laughing out loud, but it makes the game feel lively and spirited helping to combat the redundancy even the best of mobile games can fall victim too.

“Empires” is just the perfect example of a mobile gaming experience. At its heart it’s a pick up and play anytime puzzle game that everyone should have one of on their device, but the combat and five unique strategy campaigns, along with the well implemented art style, give it the kind longevity and depth not usually present in puzzle games. It all leads to a game that’s hard to put down, and impossible to forget.

“Tiny Token Empires” didn’t exactly invent its core concept, but it does execute it in a way that stands out from anything of its kind, and provides your next mobile game addiction without apology. So join me and put productivity off until next week (maybe) by trying “Tiny Token Empires,” my app of the week.

  

App of the Week – XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Developer: 2K Studios

Compatible with: iPod Touch 5th gen and up, iPad 2, iPad Mini, iPhone 4S and up (optimized for iPhone 5)

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: $20.00

Available: here

There’s a lot to be said about “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” for iOS, but none of it can be said without eventually mentioning the price.

Yes, “XCOM” is a $20 gaming app, in a world where $20 can also easily translate to owning 20 gaming apps. This will cause many people dismay, or even fits of laughter.

But I’m not going to talk about the price just yet. Instead I just want to focus on “XCOM.”

XCOM” took the console and PC world by storm last year as gamers everywhere discovered the joy of running a worldwide alien defense organization, and commanding troops on the ground in tense and violent tactical operation scenarios. A revival of one of the most complicated and hardcore PC franchises of all time, “Enemy Unknown” somehow managed to find a way to maintain the things that made that series great, while also making the experience much more manageable and appealing to the more mainstream gaming market.

Of course the star of the game is its permadeath system. Much like last weeks “Sword and Glory” app, death is not only around every corner in “XCOM,” but when it happens you lose that soldier for good. This is made worse by how much you can customize a soldier to make them your own, and the hours you will inevitably spend leveling up your favorites. No matter how much time or effort you put into a character though, one false move and they are dead and gone.

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It’s a punishing system to be sure, but it gives the game an element of tension that would be impossible without it. Every decision matters in “XCOM,” whether it be on the battlefield, or in the management mode when trying to determine what countries to aid (you can’t save them all) and what research to pursue in order to manufacture new items and weapons. Every moment in “XCOM” is spent making these tough decisions, and as such success and joy are found not in glorious moments of gratification, but just through mere survival, and a chain of little moments that make up your 30+ hour playtime.

A glorious moment of success is to be found, though, the minute you boot up the game and realize that this is indeed the entire “XCOM” experience (sans multiplayer) on a mobile device. Sure the graphics took a very slight hit, but this is compensated for by some nice touch controls that add to the feeling of being the “Commander” character the game casts you as. While playing this on an iPhone over an iPad is not the most welcoming of propositions, again it’s the fact it even exists in that format in a playable manner that deserves recognition.

Ultimately though, even though this is still every inch of the original 2012 game of the year candidate expertly ported by 2K to a potentially hostile format, it does come back to the price. While $20 spent well is a fair amount of money, the fact is that $20 for this game is a steal, considering it means you’re getting what is essentially a console game at about a third of the original price, to take with you wherever you go. The price is all a matter of perspective, and in an app world where a “Free” game can easily set you back around $20 when you consider in-app purchases (of which “XCOM” has none) and usually are not of this level of quality, you really have to call this a case of paying an appropriate price for what you get.

“XCOM” defied expectations last year and made most of its fans out of people who never played this type of strategy game before, much less the franchise. With any of the luck I do not have when I play this game (my guys die a lot), this mobile version will do the same as it’s a near-flawless port of that all-time great strategy experience.

So get ready to craft a virtual graveyard of fallen soldiers, start seeing Chryssalids in you nightmares, and get addicted to “XCOM” all over again as it’s not only a perfect port, but my app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Sword and Glory

Developer: Ifelse Media Ltd.

Compatible with: iPod Touch 3rd gen and up, iPad, iPhone 3GS and up (optimized for iPhone 5), Android devices

Requires: iOS 4.0 and up, Android 2.0.1 and up

Price: Free

Available: here (for iOS) and here (for Android)

If you’re anything like me, you’re suffering some serious withdrawals this week, as there will be no new “Game of Thrones” episode on Sunday, and winter itself will have come and gone by the time we get more.

However, if you are similarly disheartened by the hibernation of television’s best show, there is a simple solution that can tide you over for the long wait.

Read the books.

Should that not be enough to feed the hunger though, then also consider downloading “Sword and Glory.”

It’s a medieval-ish era gaming app that shares several similarities with the HBO series, starting with the basis of families feuding. Right from the outset you are asked to align yourself with one of three warring clans (or choose to go on your own), for which to win glory for. After choosing some personal attributes that help create your character, you’ll find that winning glory mostly boils down to completing various quests that all lead to one-on-one duels with some undesirables.

Making up the bulk of the gameplay, the dueling system in “Sword & Glory” is of the easy to learn, but tough to master variety. It only consists of two basic functions (block and attack) which can each be accomplished through various levels of force, with the basic goal being to get past your enemies’ defenses and kill them. I’ve heard it compared to a “rock, paper, scissors” style, but it’s more about timing and rhythm, especially in later parts where the difficulty shoots up quickly and you are forced to think and act appropriately.

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In another interesting parallel to “Thrones,” the world of “Sword & Glory” is a morally grey one, even though the game’s graphical palate is pleasingly rendered in black and white. Choices must be made around every corner which can hold great sway over proceedings both immediate and long term. Though not as ambiguous or ambitions as say “The Walking Dead,” you’ll often find yourself pausing before decisions to consider your actions, lending weight to the more quiet moments, and some unexpected depth to an otherwise bare bones plot.

Hands down though, the biggest comparison between the two properties is their shared belief that all men must die. Death is inevitable in “Sword & Glory” and once it occurs, your character is gone forever, with their accomplishments immortalized in the game’s ever expanding graveyard. Fear not though, as once death occurs, you may continue on as the next in your character’s line and, while you lose any silver and stats your previous creation had, you retain the glory points they accrued (which can be traded for currency and rare items) and all their equipment as well.

It’s an absolutely brilliant lineage concept that lends both urgency to all your current proceedings, and serious replay value long term, as you attempt to progress a little further each generation. Even if it weren’t present though, you’d find plenty of motivation to keep playing thanks to a perfectly tuned combat system and plenty of enhancements to both your character and homestead to purchase, not to mention the various quests, paths, achievements, and final legacies available to pursue based on your choices.

Sure it’s nothing new in RPG terms, but I can’t overstate how well executed it all is. What you get with “Sword & Glory” is a finely tuned (and damn good looking) mobile RPG that is built upon one of the least forgiving permadeath systems I’ve ever seen, thanks to a lack of stored save points, beyond where you left off. While it can be frustrating to lose a character you’ve invested hours in, it only furthers your motivation to do better the next time, and to die every time with as much glory as possible.

I may keep mentioning “Game of Thrones” since I stumbled upon “Sword & Glory” while getting over my withdraws from the show, but in no way does it relies on that, or any other, property or context to stand out, thanks to a rare mix of raw emotion, depth, and accessibility. In a game all about establishing your legacy and forging a name for yourself, I’m happy to bestow “Sword and Glory” with the title of app of the week.

  

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